RESPONSE # 4 Juliette Kristensen
On Images Running Away With Themselves: Or, Networking with Tubes and Cylinders
PHYSIO-34 Edison Dictaphone Tubes Physiology
Partly under the mistaken belief that I knew exactly what I was getting, I made the choice of the above line from UCL Museums’ accession list, picking these words as a way into my objects of study. It was not only the individual words – ‘Edison’, ‘Dictaphone’ and ‘Tubes’ – and their confluence into one thing that set off a chain of referents and signifiers, but more so, that they pointed towards a set of images.
First and foremost was an image that is something of a visual obsession of mine, one that has been critical to my research on writing technologies – an 1892 illustration of a Victorian woman typist, a ‘typewriter’, caught in the act of transcribing from an Edison Phonograph machine onto a writing machine.
So frequently have I returned to this image in my mind, I often assume it has become ‘worn out’, exhausted by its handling. But here again, at the moment of choosing a research object for this project, the image came into focus, crisp and clear. Then, fast on its heels came a flood of other associated images, both photographs and illustrations of similarly networked women:
Of course, in choosing my object of study, there was only the text, only their description as ‘tubes’. But with these images of Victorian and Edwardian networked women in mind, these ‘tubes’ became the Edison Phonograph’s headset’s ‘wires’, the rubber tubes that channelled the sound from the machine into the body of the woman. And in dwelling on the materiality of these tubes, another image came to mind, albeit of a different scale.
Sometime in 2008 or 2009, during a research trip to track down the blueprints of the General Post Office’s headquarters in London, I had stumbled upon a map of London’s Pneumatic Despatch in the archive in which I was working.* There, in all its seeming familiarity but in truth its deep peculiarity, was a mapping of the 34-mile pneumatic tube system for telegraph messages, a dormant network lying under the streets of London.**
Within this network of networks – of woman and machine, of messages and tubes –a possible research direction began to appear. From the very human-sized scale of the typist-transcriber to the city-sized scale of the London’s other tube system, I would explore the terrain of bodies, networks and communication in Victorian London armed with an Edison headset in one hand and in the other, the map of London’s Pneumatic Despatch grid.
So, with these objects networked into a landscape, I booked a first meeting with them.
In the subsequent email exchanges about this meeting, the tubes’ curator Nick Booth generously offered this report:
“The tubes have just been inspected and it appears that only one has a recording, and that one is broken and unplayable. The other two are whole but blank. I thought I ought to let you know in case that changed your mind.”
Of course, I knew then that what I was meeting was not what I had thought I would meet; I knew then that these ‘tubes’ were wax cylinders for recording and playing back sound on the Edison Phonograph. But yet, even as the objects changed from ‘tubes’ into ‘cylinders’, my entanglement with them was, by then, irreversible; they were already networked in.
** The Pneumatic Despatch network appears to have been in use in the British Civil Service up until at least 1999, as told to me by a former British civil servant.